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June 22, 2003 [feather]
Relatively sincere

Writing in response to my post on the discomforts of academic relativism, Robert Bove argues that it's wrong to chalk up the academic humanities' problems to cynical careerism:

...a lot of the fads out there in academia are supported by well-meaning folk, who, though agnostics at best, and thereby inadequately armed to confront a hoary old enemy ... have been reacting to recent (19th century) utilitarian, mechanistic notions of what a university should beóand, it should go without saying, those same notions of what people should be. Disturbed by world systemsówhether mass corporate or mass science (the same thing, now, no?)óthey desperately want an ìidentityî that doesnít make them another cog or grommet. Who can blame them? Who can blame the sincere ones, that is, and not the cynics who play the identity game looking out for numero uno.

I agree that there is a great deal of sincerity and good intent out there. That's one reason why it's difficult to discuss this topic: if you want to be a fair commentator, you have to keep in mind that a great many of the people whose work you say is self-serving, short-sighted, and intellectually irresponsible are well-meaning, even deeply committed, scholars and teachers. But that doesn't mean they aren't fooling themselves, or being fooled by others, and that doesn't make them less responsible for recognizing when they or someone else substitutes trendy gimmicks for substantive scholarship and teaching. One of the hardest things to come to grips with about the academic humanities, in my opinion, is how much conviction people can bring to utterly bankrupt undertakings.

Take a test case: Consider the inexperienced but passionately committed young graduate student, about to embark on her dissertation. She is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English literature, but for one reason and another (the zeitgeist of her field being one of them), she determines that she will not devote her thesis work to literary study, but to theorizing the cultural construction of the human body. With her advisors' encouragement and praise, she proceeds to write a book-length manuscript on the discourse of disease in nineteenth-century England. She tells herself that this is legitimate because, having read her Foucault and her Derrida, she knows that "textuality" is her real subject matter, and that it would be artificial and theoretically unsophisticated to confine herself strictly to literary texts. She also knows that for her dissertation to mean much to anyone, it must attempt to present an argument about how Victorian culture came into being and what its political dimensions were: sticking to novels and poems won't let her do that, but expanding her purview to include medical writing, newspaper reports, ads and cartoons, early anthropology, conduct books, public health reports, and even circus broadsides will.

So it comes to pass that she finds herself writing medical history from within a Ph.D. program in English. She has never taken a course on nineteenth-century history, and has no special claim to be able to write authoritatively about the history of science or about medicine. All she has is her good intentions, her excitement at the undertaking, and her will to make it all work. She does her best. She is sincere. She's also full of crap. But no one says so and no one seems to think so: she wins fellowships and garners praise; she lands a prestigious job and eventually publishes a revised and expanded version of the thesis with a prestigious press; she gets tenure; she is now established at her institution as the department's resident Body Critic (every top English department must have one of those, just as it must have a queer theorist and a postcolonial theorist and a squad of feminist theorists). She is never not entirely sincere. She truly thinks she is doing what she ought to be doing, and that she has spent her time and energy well. Those who should tell her otherwise do not--her advisors pile on the praise, her colleagues encourage her (even the older ones who know better). Historians are nasty, but she has been led to expect that from them, and has been taught not to take it personally.

Perhaps it is the case that she didn't wholly mangle the history she tried to write and that there may be something of worth buried deep in the book, past the generic race/class/gender-oriented framing, past the parrotry that is required for professional entry, deep in the close readings that were her greatest source of pleasure in the entire project. But then, perhaps the book--the product of five years of graduate school and five more years of assistant professorship--was just a complete waste of time, sweat, paper, and, yes, deep if misguided sincerity. That tends to be how I feel about it now, anyhow. It's a harsh assessment, but it's also mine to make since it's my book I'm talking about.

The above is a thumbnail sketch of how an academic absurdity is created from within the context of sincerity. I'm not proud to be Exhibit A in my argument, but I'd rather point honestly to myself than pick on someone else. A lot of people make asses of themselves in the name of making scholars of themselves--I think it's especially common in English, where the strain of coming up with original topics bumps up against the habit of using chic theory to cover up a lack of learning. The trouble is that once you've made that ass of yourself (which you do at dissertation stage if not before), you are locked into it for the next 8 or more years. The tenure clock and the assembly-line rhythms of expected publication demand it--there is no time to abandon a bum project once one is well into it, no opportunity to reconceive or even stop to get one's bearings. The show must go on. It's hard to realize you've become an ass in such a context, and harder still to admit it later, after the book has been published for the world to see. Far easier to stay ever so sincere and well-meaning, and never to know the truth.

UPDATE: Photon Courier responds with a post entitled "The Dictatorship of Theory." C.S. Lewis makes an appearance, as do b-school and a Procrustean bed. Worth reading.

posted on June 22, 2003 8:46 AM